Netflix Now: Disenchantment (2018) - Reviewed

Matt Groening’s newest project has hit Netflix with its first season, a ten-episode “book” to start off the tale of the Disenchantment universe – an open interpretation of a medieval-style fantasy kingdom known as Dreamland and its surrounding Enchanted Forest and neighboring lands of elves, fairies, giants, ogres and a race of strange amphibious humanoids known as Dankmirians. Much like its predecessors, it focuses on characters who are, in one way or another, outcasts who seek to discover who they are and what their purposes might be.

So many familiar names dot the credits for those who have been fans of Groening’s other works, from voice actors to writers to production staff. Bill Oakley and Josh Weinstein, who spearheaded what were arguably the best seasons of The Simpsons, serve as co-executive producers for this series alongside Groening himself, and each of the three also contributed to the writing. David X. Cohen, a familiar name for Futurama fans, both wrote and produced for the series as well. With music by Mark Mothersbaugh and cast with beloved voice acting veterans such as John DiMaggio, Tress MacNeille, Billy West, Maurice LaMarche and David Herman, in many ways Disenchantment is an extension of the brilliance that made The Simpsons in its heyday and Futurama both the iconic animated sitcoms that they became. 

It’s difficult to say whether it will follow in those footsteps, as ten episodes in, it seems to still be attempting to find its own unique footing on which to stand. It feels unsure of itself, and doesn’t pick up as quickly as is hoped – although by the sixth episode, the characters seem to start falling into their roles more naturally, and the real story that drives the continuing narrative begins to take shape. It is a promising series, but as has been the case with many other animated sitcoms before it, Disenchantment won’t really find its niche with a single season under its belt. The strongest part of the show is its characters, in the way they don’t exactly follow the blueprints of their archetypes. There is quite a bit more humor and imagery here that is unabashedly adult in nature, but whether or not this is a weakness is difficult to gauge at this early point in the series. If it relies on the compelling storyline it introduces slowly throughout these first ten episodes and has faith in the fantastic characters that populate it, Disenchantment could be a sister cult hit to Futurama – and it would deserve the title.

Indeed, there are many similarities between the main trio of characters in both Futurama and Disenchantment. Princess “Bean” Tiabeanie of Dreamland (voiced by Abbi Jacobson), like the mutant Turanga Leela, is tough and can handle herself in a fight, but has a soft heart and cares deeply for her friends. She could easily have become the typical trope of a princess who wants adventure over a monotonous castle life, but Bean really just wants to be accepted and loved, because she feels like she doesn’t really fit in anywhere. Her best friend Elfo (Nat Faxon) is the Phillip Fry of this series, with his simple, good-hearted oafishness and sweet demeanor. An elf who seeks to understand what it means to live in a world where not everyone is happy, he becomes both a McGuffin and a main character, serving as the angel on Bean’s shoulder. The (literal) demon on her other shoulder is Luci (Eric AndrĂ© ), a tiny spirit from Hell sent to the young princess to sway her toward the dark side. Matt Groening himself has compared Luci to lovable old Bender, the cheerful sociopath with a heart of forty-percent gold. The relationships between these characters drive much of the series’ heart; so much of the series hangs on Bean’s behavior and the choices she makes, and her two partners-in-crime are essentially a conscience in schism. 

Disenchantment definitely is not easy to judge based solely on these ten episodes. As it tries to define itself among expectations that it will conform to the humor and timing of its two lauded predecessors, as a whole it seems to lack the perfect pace of Futurama or the charm of early episodes of The Simpsons. Given a blank slate, though, the series gives us a well-built animated world, populated with endearing characters, and while it may take a little longer to find its unique voice, the story it begins to tell is an interesting one. If you’ve been watching the first few episodes and are feeling disenchanted yourself, give the season as a whole a chance to find itself – you’ll be rewarded with a plot that gathers momentum, characters you’ll genuinely care about and root for, and plenty of background gags even when the dialogue doesn’t seem as clever as it could be. Once it finds its balance, Disenchantment has the potential to be something really magical.

--Dana Culling